Friday 29 April 2022

Bigger business: "K.G.F.: Chapter 2"

2018's first chapter in writer-director Prashanth Neel's blockbusting K.G.F. saga was a tangled, tangent-prone tale told by a doddery author (Anant Nag) in such a way that you began to wonder whether the dodderiness wasn't, in fact, a significant plot point. Did this story sound in any way credible or coherent? Should the author have been sectioned for his own health, rather than interviewed for broadcast on primetime television? "Could be the work of a madman," the author's own son (Prakash Raj) notes early on in K.G.F.: Chapter 2; sensitivity protocols prevent me from adding to that judgement, but Chapter 1 often resembled Tristram Shandy with an elevated bodycount and more port (and other stimulants) in its veins. As we join this sequel, the author is being rushed to the ICU after suffering a brain haemorrhage - Nag apparently declined a sequel payday - so it's lucky we have son around to pick up dad's fraying loose ends. This time, we're getting the story of what happened after vengeful mobster Rocky (Yash) assumed control of the Kolar Gold Fields, and the enemies he scattered in the course of film one regrouped. It will be a deeper dig both narratively and industrially, what with the reopening of a long-sealed mineshaft unleashing more conflict, and the author's son vowing to reveal "the biggest secret in the history of India", lest you were worried Neel would struggle to raise the stakes. If that line sounds trumped up, let me reassure you it registers as among the quietest elements in the movie. I watched Chapter 1 at home, and it struck me as forceful enough; Chapter 2 may be the loudest film I've ever experienced in an auditorium. Rocky is reintroduced with the assistance of a thousand drummers; he has accumulated three different theme songs on his rise to the top, all of which sound like something Limp Bizkit might have rejected at the mixing stage for being a little de trop. A tall tale - a big heap of nonsense on stilts - just got taller and wilder and noisier yet. K.G.F.: Chapter 2 is nonsense on stilts with rollerskates and prayer bells attached.

Suffice to say that the success of the first instalment hasn't made this series any less backwards about coming forwards; the immense swagger of Neel's filmmaking is still present, and impressive up to a point. Within the first half-hour, Rocky has been compared to emperors and saviours past; watching him descend from the heavens in his helicopter to cheers from the local orphans and the soot-faced K.G.F. miners (all of whom Rocky has kept on to maintain his growing personal fortune), the mind briefly drifted to Hitler hitting Nuremberg at the beginning of Triumph of the Will, but that parallel may be unintentional on Neel's part. What's clear is that the underdog of film one is now firmly and defiantly on top. Although he's kept the facefuzz, Yash now gets to rock a variety of expensive, Scarface-y outfits rather than the dusty rags he previously sported, and he looks all the better for it. It's just Rocky's chosen business model that invites question. "Greed is good, greed is progress," he tells a board meeting early on in Chapter 2. (Uh-oh.) "The sky is my limit," he affirms, sounding like any number of 21st century tech bros plotting their getaway to other galaxies. Could... could Rocky be the real villain here? Well, there are worse people in the film's universe. Rival mobsters send in the heavies in the form of the none-heavier Sanjay Dutt - Munna Bhai himself, 62 years old now, but an actor who fits this world as, say, Ray Winstone fits any film set in and around London's East End. (He rightly savours his own personal introduction, a setpiece involving a flaming rope bridge.) And there's another threat to Rocky's throne: a new, reformist Prime Minister, Ramika Sen (Raveena Tandon), who frankly makes Priti Patel look a bit of a pussycat.

The endlessly revolving power games that follow make for a confounding and disarming evening's entertainment, the kind of juggernaut-blockbuster you cling onto with a broad grin on your face even as blood and brain matter begin to leak from your ears. These films work superbly as a delivery system for action on and around the gold fields, and it's the best action South Indian cinema can presently buy: amped up to the (mad) max and cut like cocaine, but with a connoisseur's eye for strikingly absurd details, like the Tony Manero-like white suit Rocky somehow manages to keep pristine throughout a dust-up in a coalfield. And again, Neel uses his wraparound scenes to provide a layer of knowing authorial commentary - to acknowledge that what we're watching is all just story, prone to distraction, misdirection, embellishment and exaggeration like any other. It's rare to encounter an action movie that's this upfront about the mechanics of storytelling, and how the narrator gets his hero from A to B. "Don't dramatise it so much," the author's son tells his interrogator, advice that goes comprehensively unheeded by everyone sitting around Neel's monitor. Just after the intermission, Rocky offers a prediction of his future trajectory: "There will be ups and downs, U-turns and dead ends. But the speed will never decelerate." For once, a movie conceived on a grandiose scale winds up making good on its own onscreen promises.

The self-referentiality has doubtless been heightened by the fact Rocky's and Neel's stories have meshed to some extent. Both are former underdogs wondering what to do now they've achieved their initial goals (overthrow the mining bosses, launch a successful franchise). Both are forced to think beyond the local and towards the international: the battle here isn't just for control of India's gold reserves but the entire global market (for which we might read box office). Both are inevitably drawn to the wealth capital of Dubai, where both display a pragmatic ambivalence around the film's one prominent Muslim character: a cleric Rocky pulls a gun on before deciding to enter into business with. There are already signs this series might be settling into a similar formula to Bollywood's Don films, with an anti-hero who will return time and again to duel with guest villains against a new backdrop. (Yash, more expressive this time than he was allowed to be in Chapter 1, actually resembles Shah Rukh Khan in places - never more so than when miming opening fire on Dutt's troops at the start of the second half, like a hyperactive child.) And Neel's steering can sometimes be wayward and brusque: between all the men bellowing at one another, there's still not that much space for women in this world, save as arm candy, damsels in distress and mourning mothers. (There are plenty more of those here as the bodycount skyrockets; we only sense Rocky isn't a complete lost cause because he holds onto flashback-memories of his own late ma.) Yet this filmmaker's instincts for an arresting, screen-filling, jawdropping sequence remain exceptionally strong, and that's enough to carry us to Chapter 2's conclusion. Corruption; mythology; turbo-capitalist brutality. What are these movies ultimately saying about 21st century India? We may only know when K.G.F.'s ledger is closed for good. But they're not just sound and fury signifying nothing while grossing everything; there's more going on here than mere volume.

K.G.F.: Chapter 2 is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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